Lawrence Russell

Ulzana's Raid (1972) dir. Robert Aldrich writ. Alan Sharp cine. Joseph Biroc edt. Michael Luciano music Frank de Vol star. Burt Lancaster (Anglo McIntosh), Bruce Davison (Lieu. DeBruin), Joaquin Martinez (Ulzana), Jorge Luke (Ke-Ni-Tay ), Richard Jaeckel (Sergeant), Dran Hamilton (Mrs. Riordan), Gladys Holland (Mrs. Rukeyser), Margaret Fairchild (Mrs. Guilford)


1882. The Arizona-Mexico border. Fort Lowell, US cavalry garrison on an arid mesa. Some soldiers play ball as a rider approaches, galloping at speed. He bears news of an Apache uprising: the renegade Ulzana has embarked on a search and destroy mission against white homesteaders.

What sort of man is this Ulzana?

Anglo McIntosh (Lancaster), the canny garrison scout, questions two Indians who have come to the fort to trade for beef. His translator is the Apache scout Ke-Ni-Tay (Luke). As Mac teases the two stone faces with a box of cigars, he says, "Ask them what they think of Ulzana... ask them if they think he is a great war-chief... is he wiser than Nunna... braver than Chatto... is he more cruel than Victorio... ask them if he makes his wives happy in the night...."

We find out soon enough.

The action develops fast, with unexpected and brutal results. A soldier is ambushed as he waters his horse at a rock pool, his fate left to our imaginations... but not so the next ambush. A homesteader's wife and son are being escorted back to the fort by two troopers... the rear guard is shot, and the lead starts to gallop off as the pregnant wife screams for him not to abandon her... he gallops back, shoots her between the eyes, grabs her son, tries to escape but his horse is shot from under him. As the Apaches approach with knives drawn he shoots himself in the mouth. They fall on him stabbing as other Apaches gleefully rip the heart from the chest of the other trooper....

Lieu. Garnett DeBruin Ulzana's Raid

Perhaps this explains why Ulzana's Raid wasn't a big hit at the Box Office in 1972. The choreographed gun battles of The Wild Bunch were bad enough but there was a beauty in its nihilism which still left it clean. However, shooting horses and women, burning and mutilating men -- all in Technicolor -- was a bit too graphic for a generation still watching the TV News in black and white.

Apache crucifixion

Rukeyser -- a homesteader with less than his fair share of common sense -- is found hanging from his corral fence, skinned and burned, a dog's tail stuffed in his mouth. His fate is scarcely worse than Christ's, but still the shocked Christian Lieutenant has to ask why. McIntosh says cryptically, "Even the Apaches have a sense of humor."

The same fate befalls another settler named Riordan. By now the charitable Lieutenant has lost it and decides to humiliate the nearest Apache at hand, McIntosh's Number 2, Ke-Ni-Tay, ordering him to bury Riordan. But his outrage is upstaged by another atrocity as they discover Mrs. Riordan, raped and mutilated, moaning on her back in the family wagon. Why isn't she dead? A further humiliation by the vengeful Ulzana? No, says McIntosh, it's a ploy. Ulzana knows soldiers will be detailed to return the woman to Fort Lowell, thus dividing the troop and making them easy subjects for ambush.

Script writer Alan Sharp apparently intended Ulzana's Raid to be an allegory of the Vietnam War... but in 1972 few viewers picked up on this. The reason is obvious: if the point-of-view had been that of Ulzana and his Apache war-party as they go about their burning and killing, then the parallels to the infamous Mai Lai Massacre and other search and destroy missions by American forces in Nam might have been clearer. Instead, the POV remains with the pursuit detachment of white troopers. The idea is to educate the dominant white demographic into a less egocentric position, one which sees human beings as players in an apolitical Nature rather than as spiritual emissaries in a world of animals. When Lieu. DeBruin asks McIntosh why he doesn't hate the Apache, the scout replies, "Be like hating the desert because there ain't no water on it."

landscape, character and fate

Ulzana (Joaquin Martinez) is like Nature and is purely a feature of his environment, at times as static and inscrutable as a red desert rock, at others as lucid and mobile as a prairie creek. Mostly he exists in close-up, like a spirit pictograph on a canyon wall, watching his adversaries try to close the distance. He gives orders, but only with his eyes, a jerk of the head, or a miming action with his hands. Apprehend some fleeing horses from an ambush? His hands become claws, his braves respond. Kill the collie guard dog as the homesteader saws wood nearby? His eyes move, arrows hiss. Body language is also the language of cinema and here the fit is sublime: landscape becomes character, becomes fate.

The prologue of Ulzana's Raid sees Ulzana and his warriors liberating their horses at night from the corral of the Indian Agent on the San Carlos Indian Reservation. Escaping from the quarantine of the "Indian Agency" is the act of a man not only seeking freedom but also trying to recover his "power". "Power" in the Apache sense involves an anthropomorphic mysticism. Horses equal power. Killing his enemies equals power. Thus ritual mutilation becomes part of the Apache mojo. Cruelty is part of Nature. As Antonin Artaud says in Theatre & Its Double, "Everything that acts is a cruelty."

Ki-Ne-Tay, Apache Scout Ulzana, warrior Apache

Wouldn't you try to break out too? The Great Basin (Colorado-Nevada-Arizona) Indians, for example, were shot for sport by settlers crossing the arid area en route to California. The Apaches were less inclined to submission and confinement.

Lieu. DeBruin (Bruce Davison) is the vehicle through which we receive our re-education. Just six months out of the academy, DeBruin has the slim body of an adolescent and the face of a child. His father is a minister in Philadelphia, so his innocence is a matter of principle as much as naivete. Before he sets out in pursuit of Ulzana, his commanding officer Major Cartwright suggests that his principles might be hard to sustain. Says the confident DeBruin: "My father believes that it's a lack of Christian feeling that's at the root of our problem with (the Apache)."

McIntosh (Burt Lancaster) the scout is an interlocutor between the white experience and the Apache experience. This is dramatized through his conversations with DeBruin as they try to anticipate Ulzana's agenda. McIntosh lives with "an Indian woman" and is sympatico with the Apache scout Ke-Ni-Tay. Typical of the "gone native" personality, Mac has an unstated sympathy for the Apache. While there are campfire discussions about the morality of the Apache, the debate is framed within the strategy for survival. Mac loses his horse in a shootout with Ulzana's son ("Bugle Boy"). DeBruin assigns him Ke-Ni-Tay's... but before he mounts, Mac hands Ke-Ni-Tay his Winchester rifle as collateral. This gesture says it all, for Mac's cosmopolitanism is the way of the future, not the ethnocentric driven sense of duty typified by DeBruin. Once again History is the clash of cultures and vital interests. Not everyone will agree, but... below DeBruin's Christian charity runs the racist paternalism of the Reservation.

Ke-Ni-Tay (Jorge Luke) is the Apache scout attached to the Fort Lowell garrison. He speaks English only when necessary. It should be funny when he tells DeBruin that yes, he knows Ulzana: "His wife my wife's sister. His wife ugly. My wife not so ugly." But this isn't a funny movie. While his friend McIntosh doesn't doubt his integrity, he has to work to establish it for DeBruin. And he does -- virtually all insight into the movement and strategy of the silent Ulzana comes through Ke-Ni-Tay. KNT reads the tracks. KNT hunts and kills the Apache lookout. KNT finds and disperses Ulzana's horses... and in one of the finest scenes, it's KNT who finds Ulzana in a canyon and performs the final mystic ritual. When he shows up with Ulzana's body, DeBruin allows KNT to bury it, despite the desire of the troopers to take "at least the head" back to the Fort. DeBruin looks at KNT with a new respect, salutes, says "Scout," then departs with the survivors of the campaign.

they shoot horses

Alan Sharp's script is well-researched and free of propaganda, sentimentality and the cliches of the genre, i.e. they shoot horses, don't they? His view of the situation is impartial, although we're not sure if Lancaster survives at the end or not. He refuses water, asks for a cigarette. This usually means death... and despite star prerogative, the balanced POV requires a trade-off: if the big Apache dies, then the big White Man must also die.

Lancaster once again is very good, and without many of the acting mannerisms typical of his style. He had a big influence in the making of this movie. Gary Fishgall in his fine and useful Lancaster biography Against Type (1995) reports that the old perfectionist was a de facto producer as he took points rather than salary and had a say in the final edit.

As is usual with the Western genre, the landscape is magnificent, beautiful and cruel like the adversaries who hunt each other in a tightening circle. Like another Lancaster gun-drama, The Professionals, the finale uses Nevada's Valley of Fire, where the rocks seem to smolder like the recent runoff from a volcano.

© LR 1/2001


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Film Court | copyright 2001 | Lawrence Russell